Are Lawyers Going to be Ready for the 21st Century?

March 1, 2000

Andrew Levison is a partner of Grant Thornton and Head ofIS Consultancy and can be contacted at version of this article first appeared in Worldlaw Business magazine.

‘When will our firm be dragged into the 20th Century?’… During the lastdecade I have often heard lawyers comment on how frustrated they are with thedevelopment of their firm’s management style and on the use of InformationTechnology within their practice.

As we move into the 21st Century, it would appear that once again the legalprofession is lagging behind other business sectors in taking on the challengeof the ‘e-world’. ‘What do you mean?††’ I hear myself beingconfronted at another partner conference as I discuss this issue, ‘We’re onthe Web – have you seen our Web page?’

Creating a presence on the Web is just the beginning of a firm’s‘e-strategy’ implementation, not its end! Retaining online visitors in anenvironment where they can defect to a competitor at the click of a mouse is thecentral challenge in turning a Web presence into ‘e business’. Many partners(often being pushed by their marketing managers and the finance partner)consider that once the firm has a Web page and they can receive external e-mailthey have completed their ‘e-strategy’. In other words they can be seen andthey can be contacted, what else would they want to do?

In this article I challenge the readers to consider whether they have an‘e-strategy’ to take on the challenges of the 21st Century or whether theyare happy once again to be left behind. One thing is sure: advances intechnology that once took years now occur in months or even weeks.

New competitors will spring up and compete for market share in areas whichwould never have been perceived possible. Already it is possible to pay a feeand draft your own will online. Even small firms are able to reach a globalmarket over the Web. Firms can quickly become national or international.‘E-business’ is the end of geography as we know it.

The first part of the article looks at problems of content and design of lawfirm Web sites; the second part focuses on what services law firms can provideover the Web.

Web Sites

It would seem from a survey conducted by Worldlaw Business magazinethat many firms have had a Web site created in a great hurry, anxious not to beleft behind by their competitors. Below I look at some of the questions theyshould have been asking.

The first question that many firms seem to have failed to ask is ‘What isour Web site going to do?’ Many firms try putting their brochure, or worsestill their brochures, online. Often this is not easily achieved and whatresults is a huge number of text pages that are difficult to read, with a numberof large graphics or pictures, which take an absolute age to download. What isthe added value? Is the Web site purely a marketing tool?

Firms fail to ask themselves the following questions: What message do we wantto get across? Is it one of differentiation? What else could we use our Web sitefor? Who is it for?’ These fundamental questions are often not answered beforethe Web site is developed – before the firm has considered that a Web site ismore than just an online brochure and that the ‘e-world’ is undoubtedly thebiggest development of globalisation we can conceivably consider.

Let us consider in this context (ie a Web site), what is the Internet? Surelyit is simply a new tool for conveying, and (depending on its use) collatinginformation. The exciting differences that the Internet can give to the mediumof conveying information is that it is interactive, it is live and it is easilychanged. There is currently no other method of communication that can matchthese differences. What remains the same is humans who can make decisions basedon what they see. Therefore it is essential that the designers of the Web siteunderstand who the Web audience is, whom they are trying to attract, what theyare trying to convey and what, if anything, they want to get back.

It is important to remember that business users of the Internet have limitedtime. All will be unimpressed by technology (as they do not care how it worksbut they expect it to be quick and easy). They will be seekers of information(possibly buyers with very limited time to make a decision). Therefore they willdemand best value for time spent, require straightforward navigation (ie ease ofaccess to the information they require), limited frills, and information in amanner which is easy to digest. Where sites often fail is when they use largecorporate graphics and therefore it takes forever to download; they have anumber of off-putting gimmicks (several different parts of the screen moving atthe same time) and are very confusing in the information that they are trying toput over to the visitor who has regretted hitting the site. There is a school ofthought which says that a user needs to access the information he/she requireswithin three clicks or they will move to another site.

Web sites need to be able to support self selection – allow readers to makeselections which enable them to get access to the information they requirewithin the shortest possible time frame. For example if they want to purchasesomething ie either a paper/article or a service, then it must be readilyavailable. The worst-case scenario for a visitor is to request, say, a paper ona particular subject, which when paid for by credit card, takes three weeks toarrive by snail mail instead of being immediately available.

Design objectives need to be considered

  • the need to create confidence in the firm, in the information that is being imparted and the services which it is offering
  • the need to create a sufficiently comfortable feeling to make a potential buyer want to return to the site and find out more
  • the need to build in flexibility so that new functions can be added to the site as the firm’s ‘e-strategy’ develops.

Typically the site is set up in a particular manner, which then preventsfurther development. For example, an initial presence via a brochure cannot beexpanded to enable users to purchase information from the site without acomplete re-write or the repositioning of pages – which becomes a majorexercise. This bottom-up approach fails. The firm must develop a vision andbuild up from this vision.

In addition designers need to find ways of encouraging responses from thevisitors to the site so that they leave their calling card – that way the firmcan be in charge of the next move. (It is incredible that 38% of the law firmssurveyed by Worldlaw did not even have a means by which a seeker ofinformation could easily contact a partner of the firm via e-mail. This is asure sign that the Web site has been developed in a hurry and that all it isthere for is to create a Web presence.) You could ask visitors to the site tomake comments: Did they find anything they wanted? Was the site useful? Whatcould be done to improve the site?

Firms want people who hit their Web site to talk about it – creating a newcommunity of people who they want to access their site. How many professionalfirms would consider setting up a chat room – where business people (potentialclients and clients) could pose questions and candidate solutions and where thefirm’s lawyers can leave intelligent responses, often the best form ofmarketing (creating confidence that they are an expert in the subject). Firmswant to create an environment that visitors will want to come back to – it wasunbelievable that 50% of the sites surveyed by Worldlaw were not updatedregularly and 44% did not provide any other legal information. It is importantto remember that the Internet community is live and that this is one of itsmajor differences from other means of communication.

Visitors return to Web sites when they are sure they will find relevant newor updated information and that from the visited site they can locate othersites of similar interest. 74% of the sites surveyed led nowhere – in otherwords they did not have any links.

If people want to read a brochure, it is surely easier to do so off-line -where are firms adding value from the Web sites? Why are not more firms offeringaccess to their clients to useful information/knowledge or finding ways toattract new clients by offering knowledge over the Web or membership to a newsnetwork or legal chat room?


Have you considered how the Internet might change the services you offer – orthe way in which you offer your current services? If you offer new services areyou set up to be able to deliver in a timely manner? Are your systems/processesready? Do you want to change your services? Or do you just want to createawareness and increase your profile. Again an interesting statistic is that only6% of the firms surveyed are offering any form of service over the Web.

An example of a service being offered online is Linklaters Blue Flag service.Linklaters is clear to distinguish this from their normal added-value service asone which is commoditised, ie an example of a repeat situation which may notrequire an innovative legal solution, although is still likely to be a complex,high-risk and high-value problem which requires judgement similar to thatalready given and available as a precedent. It is priced to ‘provide clearvalue-for-money compared to the live lawyer alternative’. Effectively this isa service which allows fee-paying clients access to the firm’s knowledge bankon specific subjects. Clifford Chance has a similar service called NextLaw.

Some of the smaller firms have developed services where actual transactionscan take place directly over the Web. Such products include wills, change ofname documents establishing and negotiating trademarks and patents. Morerecently Berwin Leighton launched a Web-based system offering customised legaldocuments to small and medium sized businesses. The initial service is targetedat start-up high tech companies. Documents that can be accessed include those toset up new companies, apply for VAT and data protection registration and set upintellectual property transfer assignments.

The art, it would seem, is to identify client needs, which could be deliveredover the Web, either with or without minimal interaction from lawyers. This islikely to be for low-value high-volume services, which will lead onto thehigher-value ‘follow-on’ work. All in all, those law firms who get therefirst, hope to (and some will) create a short-term monopoly with all thebenefits associated with monopolies.

The kind of services which will no doubt be developed soon will be taxrelated, so that clients will be able to input certain information and get backthe necessary advice. Other services which should lend themselves to the Web arethose which have been reprocessed for case management. Further developmentshould enable clients to input all the details of a matter via the Web with allactions being automated until an exception occurs whereupon a lawyer will haveto intervene and interact. At this point the lawyer will charge a ‘highervalue’ fee.

An example of this might be where an insurance company instructs a law firmto defend its claims. The firms could share a common database or case managementsystem. The insurance company would input information on a Web page (which wouldbe developed by the law firm, but sited on the insurance companies intranet -inside its firewall). The case management system takes over producing all thestandard letters etc. Only at specific points will the lawyer need to interact.At these points the system would produce an exception report sending it bye-mail to the lawyer responsible. One must not forget that traditional businessmodels are going to change and firms will truly need to offer value to ensuresurvival.

A word of caution here – it will be necessary for firms to ensure that thosetaking services over the Web are identified and given appropriate advice orwarnings, so that they are aware that the service being purchased may not beappropriate for everyone’s needs. Otherwise this could lead to all kinds ofrisks.

Part of the ‘e-strategy’ often forgotten is how the Web can be used as abasis of lowering costs. Imagine the scenario when an employee needs stationery.The employee opens the stationery page on the firm’s intranet (this issupplied by the firm’s chosen stationary provider); the employee has accessonly to those products he or she is authorised to purchase; an order is sent tothe supplier who delivers direct within its standard contract. When the order isreceived, the employee acknowledges receipt of goods, the accounts section isinformed and payment is sent. Huge savings can be made in all procurementprocedures not just in the prices firms pay for goods but also in reduceddelivery times and improved quality of service received – not to mention thereduced paperwork.

One point, we have ignored to date is that of the technology needed todevelop such sites. The main reason for not focusing on this is that firms thatspend time worrying about the technology issues and not the key point of findingways of satisfying client demand will find themselves becoming a statistic.Developing an ‘e-strategy’ must be business driven and not a technologyinitiative.

The Internet is ideally suited for reaching out to clients, both individualsand businesses, and providing them with responsive and personalised services.Its capacity to carry a mixture of audio, video, graphics and data and itsinteractivity make it an excellent medium for delivering superior client serviceefficiently.

A key driver in making an investment in the implementation of a full‘e-strategy’ is the need to be able to serve clients rather than the moretraditional goal of reducing costs or achieving additional operatingefficiencies. Firms must clearly identify the business objectives beforeembarking on the implementation of the ‘e-strategy’ and plan thoroughly howto integrate ‘e-business’ into their current operations. The firm’sleaders must not think ‘e-business’ is just changing the front-end, it willchange the way the firm operates and to that effect the firm must have in placethe appropriate team that can manage the change. That change is likely to bemore complex than the technology implications. If partners are radical in theirapproach then the benefits achieved will be substantial.

Any legal practice which fully embraces this technology to compliment itsday-to-day operations has the potential to create a temporary monopoly and in sodoing increase its competitive advantage and gain client loyalty. The firms whodo not face the challenge of how to survive in a shrinking world.